Tilling without a tiller


Soil Tilling 101: How To Manually Till Your Soil The Efficient Way

Tilling is necessary if you plan on mixing amendments into your soil. Plus, it’s also helpful if you have compacted soil that needs to be broken up. Tilling helps remove the unwanted roots and weeds from the soil.

If you plan on turning a section of the lawn into a garden bed, tilling helps turn the sod over. As a result, it mixes organic matter from your grass into the soil. This process produces a base for the ready-to-plant garden bed. Thus, manually hand tilling will make your plants grow in a natural and more cost efficient way.

What Equipment Is Needed?

Instead of digging through your garden with a tilling machine, you can double dig your crops without any machinery. First, you’ll need a shovel that has a long, comfortable handle. You’ll also need a rake to help smooth out the soil. All of these tools will help the manual process easier and helps your garden remain clean.

When Should I Till My Garden?

This is a common question that novice gardeners tend to ask. The best time to till your garden is during the spring. At this time, the frost is completely removed from the ground, and it’s when the plants are ready to grow.

Before you start, test the soil. You need to see what extra amendments are needed. The soil amendments (organic fertilizer, peat moss, lime, mulch) are easy to obtain and inexpensive. Adding these amendments before tilling the garden will create a growing environment for your plants.

Don’t spread any form of chemical fertilizers during your first tilling. We suggest that you wait at least 6 months for your plant to grow before you place fertilizers into the soil.

The best time to till your garden’s soil is when it’s balanced. For instance, the soil can’t be too wet or too dry before tilling. If it’s too dry, it will be hard to break up the soil nicely. Plus it will be more difficult to work on.

How To Till Soil Manually

Tilling garden by hand isn’t as hard as it seems. Here are a few steps to help you get started:

Begin by spreading the compost over the soil.

Next, use your shovel to create a 10-inch ditch along one edge of space. When you start double digging the garden, you will have to work from one end to another.

You can learn how to till garden soil without needing a tiller. Hand tilling has several garden advantages over a motorized tiller. While labor intensive, you may find hand tilling is a better option for your vegetable garden and other types of gardens.

How to Till Soil Without a Tiller by Double Digging

The no till method of gardening is called double digging. You will work in rows when hand tilling a field. Some people may garden in raised beds instead of fields. You can hand till raised beds if desired.

Raised Bed Tilling

If you decide to till raised beds, you’ll work in squares instead of rows. Most raised bed gardeners don’t till the soil since raised beds don’t require it. However, there can be instances when tilling may be desired, such as a neglected and overgrown raised bed. In this case, you’ll follow the instructions for hand tilling a row garden, only you’ll work in squares instead of rows.

Gather Your Tools and Supplies

You need a few tools and possibly supplies. Before you set out to your garden, make sure you’ve gathered these and have what you need. These include, a shovel, a spade, digging fork, garden rake, wheelbarrow, and a good pair of work gloves to avoid blisters.

Organize Any Soil Amendments

Before you start hand tiling your garden, you want to organize any soil amendments you may need to use. This includes soil amendments, such as compost, much, peat, green sand, lime, etc. Determine if your soil needs amendments and which ones. Assess the condition of your soil by conducting several soil tests around your garden area along the length, width and center of your garden to get a complete picture of the soil conditions. If you plan to use fertilizer, add it, too.

Best Time to Hand Till Your Garden

The best time to hand till your garden is early spring. Plan to till just after the last frost of the spring. If possible, time your activity before new plant growth emerges or at the very least right when new plants began to break through the soil.

Determine Soil Readiness

You will need to work only under good soil conditions. If the soil is still slightly frozen, reschedule your digging. If there’s been a week of rain and your garden is waterlogged, reschedule your digging. You want the soil to be workable and not muddy. Dig about 8″ deep and grab a handful of soil, squeezing it into a ball and then breaking it up. If the soil falls apart easily, your soil is dry enough to hand till. If your soil is loose and has a loam makeup and isn’t compacted, you have no reason to till your garden.

Step One: Start With a Good Mulch

You want to add about an inch of compost to your garden space and any soil amendments. Spread this material over the entire garden area before you begin digging. This will ensure the mulch gets mixed in with your soil to help break it up and provide needed nutrients.

Step Two: Start at One Corner of Garden

You want to start digging at one corner of the garden. You’ll need to work the entire length of your plot by digging a row that’s around 10″ to 12″ wide and 12″ deep. The width and depth ensure you are covering the needed space for healthy plants to grow.

Step Three: Displace Soil

You’ll pile the soil you remove on the upper side of the trench you’re digging. When you reach the opposite end of your garden, you’re going to step down another twelve inches to begin digging another trench (row). This time you’ll place the soil from the second row into the first row. You want to start the second row directly underneath the first row, so all the ground is tilled.

Step Four: Continue Digging Rows

You will continue working in this pattern, digging up a row, placing the soil into the previous row, until you come to the last row. This row will be filled with the soil you removed from the first row. If you’re working a large garden space, you may need to get a wheelbarrow to transfer the displaced soil to your last row.

Alternate Method of Double Digging in the Same Row

Another popular method of double digging doesn’t require displacing an entire row of soil into another row. Instead, you’ll work in blocks of soil and replace the soil within the same row.

  1. Deposit the first shovels of dirt required to reach the 12″ depth onto the ground along the edge of the row.
  2. The next shovel loads of the soil dug out beside the first block are deposited directly into the first hole you dug out.
  3. You’ll repeat this down the entire length of the row.
  4. When you reach the end of the row, you deposit the soil from the new row, the second one you start directly below the first one.
  5. When you reach the end of your second row, you’ll fill in the last block with the soil from the first block you dug up.
  6. Repeat this process until you’ve hand tilled your garden space.

Tips for Hand Tilling Garden Soil

A few tips can help you with your hand tilling. Your garden will thrive with this type of tilling option.

  • You don’t necessarily need to hand till your entire garden space. You can opt to till only the area where you will plant seeds or place transplants.
  • During the process of digging up dirt and depositing it into rows, you want to break up any chunks of dirt with your shovel, spade or rake.
  • Any rocks or boulders you find should be removed from the growing area.
  • Only hand till your garden once a season to avoid disturbing earthworms or losing soil nutrients.
  • Hand tilled soil is denser than machine tilled and provides plant roots a better home.
  • You can use a broad fork to further loosen the soil once you’ve dug a trench or block.
  • Be sure to use your rake to remove any rocks and to level the soil prior to sowing seeds and transplanting plants.
  • Don’t add fertilizers until your crops begins to bloom. If using compost, you shouldn’t need to add fertilizer.

This video demonstrate how to use a broad fork and only double dig the planting area:

Do You Have to Till Your Garden?

A growing trend is not to till gardens. The premise is you don’t disturb the beneficial nutrients and earthworms living underground. It also conserves on fuel, equipment, water, and amendments. However, some gardeners complain about constantly fighting weeds, the easy spreading of fungi or diseases when using this gardening technique.

Easy Steps on How to Till Soil Without a Tiller

Tilling a garden without a tiller can be a labor-intensive process. This 19th century French technique can provide you with several growing benefits and save you the cost of a tiller and maintaining it. You may want to try double digging in a small garden to see if it’s a method you can enjoy using.

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Heavy frost has hit our area, and I’ve been busy pulling out annuals and cutting down perennials as they prepare for a season of dormancy.

Fall is a great time to aerate the soil in preparation for Spring planting as the cold weather prevents weeds from taking root. You can save yourself a tremendous Spring task by amending your soil with organic matter on a dry, Fall day, rather than waiting until a mucky Spring.

Turning soil with a traditional handheld cultivator is pretty hard on my back, but thankfully, that’s not the only tool for the job!

Here’s a compilation of the best tools for turning soil!

Corded Electric Rotor Tiller

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If you need a bit of help getting your garden ready, or just don’t have the muscle capacity for hard labor, then a rotor tiller is the perfect solution.


  • Environmentally friendly as you can use electricity to power it
  • 8-inch depth means you don’t have to pass over spots multiple times
  • Adjustable width, between 11 and 16 inches gives lots of choices


  • Be careful not to trip over the cord

Cordless Electric Tiller

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Being both cordless and electric is the perfect environmentally-friendly combination.

This powerful tiller will help you dig deep when you’ve got an unruly piece of land.

  • Works for 40 minutes off a single charge
  • Rotating tines are removable and easy to clean
  • 5-inch tilling depth is enough to tackle most yards.
  • Does not include battery and will cost extra to purchase

Gas Rotor Tiller

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This rotor tiller means business. If you have a yard that is close to pure wilderness, then this heavy-duty tool is perfect.

Whether it’s tree roots or rocky soil, in just a few passes you’re one step closer to the perfect garden.

  • 10-inch tilling depth means less time working the soil
  • Gas-powered so you can work as long as needed
  • Powerful 6.5 HP engine means serious business
  • Weighs over 200 pounds so you need to be strong to work it

Tiller Attachment for weedeater

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Sometimes the product you have just isn’t right for the job. Instead of purchasing a brand new, expensive tool, save some money with an attachment instead.

This tiller can be attached to most Weedeaters, including brands such as Craftsman, Remington, Greenworks, and many more.

  • Works with almost all major weedeater brands
  • Can adjust the tilling width up to 9 inches which is quite versatile
  • Tine technology means rocks and debris won’t fly at you
  • Better suited for small tasks

Drill Tiller

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What do you do if you really love your drill, but also need to garden? Create a drill tiller, of course.

This innovative design allows you to attach 3 tools right to your drill.

Not only will it save you money in the long run, but it will definitely lead to a bit of celebrity status on the block.

  • Includes 3 attachments: tilling head, hold digger, weeder
  • Easy to use and won’t strain your back
  • Strong construction will last for a long time
  • Weeds still need to be manually removed

Disc Cultivator Attachment

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This disc cultivator is perfect for working the soil. It is better suited for farm use and will look very out of place in a backyard garden.

However, those that have farmland, or even untouched land, will do well to dig deep with this attachment.

  • Strong and powerful
  • Up to 38-inch width which leads to fewer passes
  • Discs are powder-coated for durability
  • Attachment only; need to purchase a sleeve hitch

Hand Tillers

Hoe and Cultivator Hand Tiller

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Want to get up close and personal with your garden soil? Then garden hoes are the way to go.

This two-in-one tool has a hoe on one side and a cultivator rake on the other side.

There’s no need to search for missing tools when you’re gardening.

  • Ergonomic handle makes it easy to grip
  • Made of solid oak for extra durability
  • Includes lifetime warranty
  • Tines may bend but can be put back in place

Twist Tiller

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Need to turn the soil in your garden but are afraid of the effects it will have on your back?

Instead of stooping over, try this twist tiller. It is 38 inches tall which is perfect to allow you to stand up while gently moving dirt.

  • Perfect for mixing in soil amendments
  • Padded, ergonomic handle is comfortable to use
  • Able to easily pull weeds out
  • Not meant for hard-packed clay

Rotary Hand Tiller

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Sometimes when you see a tool, you just know it means business. With its three tines with multiple spikes, this hand tiller looks like it can get the job done, and it can.

The long handle allows you to stand up while working so you can stay comfortable, making it one of the best rotary tillers on the market.

  • Pole can extend from 40 to 60 inches, depending on preference
  • Made from stainless steel and aluminum so won’t break or rust
  • Middle wheel is removable for more gardening options
  • Extendable pole has a habit of collapsing

U-Bar Digger (Broadfork)

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When it comes to tilling your soil the old fashioned way can make the most sense.

This double-handled broadfork works to mimic the natural process of soil aeration.

It gets the job done and instead of relying on batteries or gasoline, it is powered by pure arm strength.

  • Extremely environmentally friendly
  • All-American made materials and construction
  • Relatively light at 12 pounds
  • Need serious arm strength to work it

Soil Knife

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As most expert gardeners will attest, knives are valuable tools.

A soil knife won’t fend off attackers, but it will allow you to complete all your basic gardening tasks, such as planting holes and pruning shrubs.

  • Used by Japanese gardeners for centuries
  • Multi-functional
  • Dual edged: flat and serrated edges
  • Blade can be sharp; keep out of reach of children

Hand Trowel

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A hand trowel is one of the best tools for the job. Kid gardeners are often given trowels as their first tool, and master gardeners are quick to share their opinion on their favorite brand.

If you have a garden, you need this tool to create your horticultural masterpiece.

  • Includes inches and centimeter markings for perfect planting
  • Handle is ergonomic and comfortable for continued use
  • Hole in handle allows for easy organization
  • Relatively small; will need extra tools

Digging Shovel

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You’ve tilled the ground and aerated your soil. Now comes the fun part – digging.

If you have a hole to be dug, or just need to move some dirt around, a digging shovel is a tool for the job.

This is a smaller shovel, and perfect for tighter spaces such as planting shrubs.

  • Paint is rust-resistant for a longer-lasting tool
  • Easy to store because of its small size
  • Light in weight and easy to use
  • Taller people should consider a longer product

Digging Spade

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Unless you’re a master gardener, it can still be hard to understand the difference between a shovel and a spade.

Spades have flat bottoms and look rectangular in size. They are meant for breaking up compact soil.

  • Rust resistance construction
  • Handle is made from one piece of wood for durability
  • Evenly distributed weight makes it easy to use
  • No tread on spade to rest your foot on

Digging Fork

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If you’ve got tough ground to break through, a digging fork can help you out.

Whereas spades and shovels will remove large patches of dirt, a digging fork works to aerate and break up the hardened dirt.

It especially works well in the spring when you’re getting your raised garden beds in order.

  • Uses muscle strength, not batteries or electricity
  • Constructed to not break or bend
  • Handle makes it easier to grip and prevents wrist strains
  • Large width is unsuitable for compact areas


Cultivating Claws

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We’ll forgive you if you seem a little confused with this gardening tool. These cultivating claws are exactly that – claws. Simply hold onto the hand in each hand and start raking your dirt.

You can get back to nature and digging in the dirt, and might even realize that your spirit animal is indeed a bear.

  • Lets you really experience your garden
  • Allows you to target hard-to-reach areas
  • Materials are strong and durable
  • Hands can get quite dirty

Small hand cultivator

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This cultivator is described as a ninja rake, which is pretty apt considering its design.

Based on a classic Japanese gardening tool, the cultivator will easily rake through shallow soil in flower beds.

  • Includes 5 prongs instead of the standard 3
  • Excellent at removing weeds
  • Prongs are very sharp and powerful
  • Small and only good for shallow dirt

Ergonomic Hand Cultivator

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Gardening is strenuous. If don’t have back issues to begin with, you can quickly develop them after a hard day’s work in the garden.

As a result, finding good ergonomic tools is a must.

This hand cultivator works to break up soil but because of its design, you can remain standing up.

  • Ergonomic design eases tension from back
  • Bright orange color means never losing it
  • Can be taken apart for easy storage
  • Can be hard to assemble

High Wheel Garden Cultivator

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No, you haven’t traveled back in time with this contraption. Garden cultivators have existed for centuries, and if the wheel still works, why re-invent it?

For those looking to gently hoe their garden without straining their back, this unique design can work wonders.

  • Easy to use and very comfortable to push
  • Handles are adjustable to fit different heights
  • Shallow cultivation won’t harm root crops

  • Some customer service issues with the manufacturer

Garden Rakes

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What garden is complete without a garden rake? As with many gardening tools, there are different types of rakes.

This flat, metal rake is perfect for both raking leaves and combing through dirt.

  • Handle is light in weight and easy to hold
  • Strong steel construction in rake head
  • Good customer experiences
  • May still need a fan leaf rake for larger trees

Spading Fork

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A spading fork is necessary to aerate your soil. Without oxygen, nutrients, or water, your soil will suffer, as will the roots of your plants that depend on dirt for nourishment.

To work this tool, simply place it in the earth and pull up.

  • Can place foot on forkhead for better leverage
  • Works best with raised flower beds
  • Even has the ability to move hay or compost to cover crops
  • Might be too cumbersome for some

Garden Hoe

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If you’re looking to sow a large swathe of seeds, a garden hoe will help you with your task.

Made with a long, flat bottom, a garden hoe works a bit like a rake, but with a more singular purpose.

  • Disc blade is made from recycled agricultural tools
  • Edges are nice and sharp and will last a long time
  • Blade and socket are welded together so won’t fall apart
  • Blade can nick if hits rocks


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If you come across a tree stump or a compacted piece of clay, it’s time to pick up your pickax.

This tool is small enough to hold in one hand but strong enough to be a formidable weapon on your quest for a cultivated garden.

  • Dual-head combo for all matter of rough terrain
  • Handle grip is made from rubber and won’t slip
  • Handle could be longer to reach more objects


If all else fails, just use your hands! Gardening should be fun. Unleash your inner kid and start digging.

After all, what’s the point of fingernails if you can’t get dirt stuck under them?

Related Questions:


Once you have decided to plant seeds or flowers, you will need to prepare your garden soil.

To loosen the soil, a cultivating fork will work best. Its large tines work to quickly aerate the soil which will make it easy to start digging holes for your garden.

You can use a stand-up cultivating fork or get down on the ground and use a smaller-handled fork.

Which shovel is best to break through soil?

When it comes to shovels, there’s actually a lot to understand. Shovels are tools and you will want the right tool for the job.

To break through soil, choose a spade. This will have a flat edge at the bottom which will allow you to break through hard ground.

A pointed, or rounded-bottomed shovel will help to move dirt but will be too cumbersome to break more solid ground.

How do you turn soil?

Garden soil needs to breathe. If there is a hard crust on top of your dirt, then air, nutrients, and water can’t penetrate. As a result, any roots or even seeds won’t be able to grow.

You can use many different tools to turn your soil, depending on your needs. First, start with a shovel to turn large areas of soil.

Then, use a hoe to work on more tedious parts.

Finally, use a rake to smooth out the soil and capture any large-sized rocks you want to remove.

What do you use to loosen soil?

To loosen soil, you can use a hand tiller. Made with rotating tines, tillers can move large areas of ground.

If you have a much larger piece of land, you might want to consider a rotor tiller, which is a large machine.

If there are other trees or plants around the area you want to loosen, you can also consider a shovel.

While not nearly as fast as other tools, it is more precise and will only dig up the area you want it to.

That sums up our list of soil turning tools! What do you use and love?

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Break ground with the right tools

The right tools for the job can be the difference between an interminable landscaping project and one that goes smoothly and efficiently. Aspiring landscapers probably have a few shovels and rakes hanging in their garages and sheds for basic landscaping work. But while such tools are effective for certain projects, when it comes to churning soil for garden beds or digging holes for outdoor structures, additional tools come in handy. It may be well worth a trip to a nearby home center to purchase or rent one of these tools ideal for breaking ground.


A rototiller, sometimes called just a “tiller,” is a powered garden tool designed to loosen soil prior to planting. A rototiller also can help aerate soil during the growing season. Because they reduce the need for manual spade digging or hoeing, tillers can be useful landscaping tools, particularly for homeowners who want to work efficiently.

Rototillers will break through tough soil and any plant roots. They come in a variety of sizes, and it’s best to match the tool to the size of the job. Many homeowners can get by with smaller, less powerful models, especially if the tiller is only necessary at the beginning of planting season. Professional landscapers or those with large swatches of property may benefit from larger models.


Augers, both mechanical and manual, are essentially large drill bits that help move materials from one location to another. Augers are typically used to cut holes in landscapes, and they are good for posthole drilling, which is part of the process of installing deck footings, fencing posts or other structures. Augers come in a variety of sizes, and homeowners can choose how much power they prefer. Augers can be heavy and cumbersome, and many do-it-yourselfers will find that one-person augers are more than adequate for their projects.

Augers dig deep holes, so it is always smart to have the property surveyed prior to use. This way pipes, gas lines, buried electrical lines, and any other obstructions are clearly identified prior to drilling.

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Cultivators are similar to tillers in that they loosen soil. Cultivators are effective during the growth period of plants, when they can be used to aerate the soil and remove weeds. Cultivators come in hand-held versions and push models, and some are even motorized. Cultivators get close to plants to remove weeds without disturbing the plant. They also are used to stir in compost or fertilizer.

While many people think cultivators and tillers are the same, that is not the case. The former is less powerful and will mix the soil or stir up the top layer, while the latter can break up moderately hard ground and loosen firm soil.

When using any tools around the garden, wear the proper protection. This includes devices to protect hearing when power tools are in use, as well as gloves and safety goggles. Tillers, augers and cultivators have the potential to toss soil and rocks into the air, so make sure others keep their distance while work is in progress.

I hear and read many people who are completely against double-digging, and to state this upfront, for those most part, I’m in complete agreement with their assessment. I am a believer in no-dig gardens. Even more so, I think being patient with our soil situations—planting what will grow and piling organic matter atop the soil to replenish the nutrient cycle—works. I’ve seen it work in dry situations, in clay situations, in sandy situations.

In a word, I know that, with a little time and some simple measures, we can reinvigorate the planet, at least the little patches we have some say over. I mention this to establish that I’ve come to double-dig gardens with this mindset: the answers to our fertility woes are not dominating nature but rather collaborating with it. Nature is constantly working to repair its soil problems and stabilize the eco-system, so we don’t need to fight it but simply better enable it.

However, it is worth noting that some of our garden beds, even in a permaculture system, are not exactly the way nature would do it. Kitchen gardens are intensively managed areas in which we often ask more of the soil than natural systems would. Few of us are living primarily off of perennial crops, so we must accept that annuals will feature somewhere, to some degree, in our self-sustaining cultivation plans. That will likely mean amending soil in organic, yes, but still unnatural ways.

The Issues with Double-Digging

Video: How to Make a No-Dig Garden

Double-digging has several things that people object to. That begins, of course, with digging at all. It’s becoming more and more widely accepted that digging and/or tilling in the garden is not a long-term plan for food production. Digging destroys the soil life, which at first works to the gardener’s advantage as the corpses and such decompose, but the ultimate outcome is that, with no soil life remaining, all of the benefits those organisms naturally provide—aeration, fertilization, decomposition, etc.—are increasingly missing.

Another topic commonly brought up with double-digging, as with tilling, is that it mixes subsoil with topsoil, creating a less nutrient-rich growing medium. Root systems, in principle, are meant to work with the natural layering of soil, where leaf litter covers humus atop soil that has buried the subsoil. The shallow thin roots spread outwards to collect as much nutrients as possible, while fewer, thicker, deeper roots mine minerals from the subsoil. Mixing this all up isn’t in tune with how roots actually function.

There are more considerations. When we dig, we loosen soil, and loose soil sinks ecosystems because it is much more susceptible to erosion by wind and water. When we dig we unearth seeds that have been waiting for a chance to become weeds, while these weeds, left alone, would slowly rebuild the soil and system, they usually aren’t our goal in creating garden beds. When we dig, we release carbon into the atmosphere, while our planetary goal should be more geared towards sequestering it in plant life.

All of this and it’s extremely labor-intensive.

In Bed with Double-Dig Devil’s Advocate

Video: Double Digging

Not entirely to flip-flop, but a carefully constructed double-dig bed does address some of the claims brought against it. Done well, soil layers remain or are recreated as they should be: subsoil, soil, humus, and organic litter. Done well, the risk of erosion is dramatically decreased, and the topsoil—presumably depleted—is revived with nutrients, even life. Done well, weeds are suppressed, and drainage or water absorbtion is increased. The method doesn’t necessarily equate to complete destruction.

Sometimes, one might say, double-dig beds are useful. When soil is completely compacted, void of plants, and lacking in fertility; when the space is near the house and to be heavily managed by humans anyway for intensive food production, zone one food production; could double-dig beds not be a viable method? Certainly, it’s not the only method, but must we demonize it so? Can we not imagine it as something that might actually function well and sustainably in the right hands?

• If we take only the topsoil out, not mixing soil layers, and aerate the subsoil with a fork, never turning it, have we not maintained some soil life while instantaneously aerating and possible amending the—presumably depleted—topsoil, including inoculating it with new soil life to account any destroyed by digging.

• Wouldn’t this quickly deal with compaction issues in areas—Zone 1—where we are meant to first begin cultivation, and doing so in abundance, allowing us to then concentrate on building our long-term sustainable system atop something that can produce now rather than in six months?

• If we then, cover our double-dig beds—as we should—with a layer of humus or humus-like compost, mulching over that with organic litter, have we not in fact rebuilt the soil layers as they would ideally be, only with drainage, erosion, and aeration issues more immediately addressed?

• In the case of labor, might we also say that, in some circumstance, small gardens in largely urban areas, gathering the materials required to sheet mulch or utilize other no-dig methods, which are resource-intensive, could require more work than double-digging and using less organic material for the top two layers only?

A Singular Double-Dig Method

Video: No-Rules Compost

Truth be known, double-digging beds has not been something I’ve often utilized or something I often see as the best option, but I also think—in permaculture—we are to examine and analyze methods for what they are: tools we can utilize. We don’t have to use the same technique every time in every situation. In fact, permaculture teaches us not to do so, that our job is to find the right solution for each individual set of circumstances. With that in mind, it seems a bit pious (in the devoted no-dig sense) to claim double-digging should never be a viable option.

I like to think that, by and large, while many certainly wouldn’t adopt the technique, the overall objection to double-dig beds is to the notion of repeating the process again and again, a la annually tilling a garden. In this case, I would have to agree that double-digging does have a destructive, unsustainable element to it. However, if we are digging then fostering the soil life to blossom, afterwards feeding it undisturbed from the top with leaf litter from perennial plants, as naturally happens, in this case, have we really done something so different than digging a swale or building a sheet-mulch bed on hardpan?

The wider issue here, for me, is that sometimes I feel certain techniques and terminology come with a fingers-in-the-ears approach from their practitioners, such as with composting, and on the whole, that warrants a little worry. Some would suggest double-digging as a worthwhile consideration in certain instances. That’s not to say the buck stops here, but experienced voices—even of those not doing things exactly as we might—are worthy of paying attention to. And, in much the same way, double-digging seems an instrument that sometimes strikes the right note.

While I know the damning comments are likely to follow below, regardless, I’d again like to remind that this was not an argument that all gardeners in all places should use double-digging all the time but rather recognition that there may be a place for it for some gardeners at some time.

Feature Photo: Fork and Spoon (Courtesy of Erich Ferdinand)

Double Digging: How to Build a Better Veggie Bed

Double digging is an alternative approach, one that capitalizes on the soil’s inherent ecological processes, while making it loose enough to plant in right away. The basic premise of double digging is to create an extra deep bed of loose soil – 16 to 18 inches, versus the 6 to 8 inches that most tillers create – without inverting the soil layers.

In the natural process of soil development, distinct layers, called “soil horizons,” develop, where the most fertile soil is closest to the top. Mixing the layers with a tiller brings the less-fertile soil to the surface – that’s a disadvantage for plants and a disruption of the finely tuned relationships of the soil food web, which helps make nutrients available to plants, contributes to pest and disease resistance, and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil. Over the course of the growing season, the plants and soil microbes work together to re-establish a natural soil structure, one that would eventually lead to the black gold you’d find under the duff in a mature forest or undisturbed grassland, only to have the process set back again by next spring’s tilling.


Double digging was developed in the 1960s and ’70s by organic gardening guru Alan Chadwick and later refined by John Jeavons, who brought the French “biointensive” method to the United States. It takes a bit more elbow grease at the outset than tilling, but the good news is that, unlike tilling, double digging only needs to be repeated every few years when done right the first time. Here’s how:

  1. Drive four stakes in the ground in a rectangular shape to mark the corners of the bed you want to build. Four feet is the maximum width that allows easy access to the middle of the bed without stepping on the soil and compacting it, but the bed can be as long as you would like. Remove any existing vegetation from the area where the bed will be.
  2. Dig a 12-inch wide trench to the depth of your spade (about 8 or 9 inches) from one end of the designated bed and put the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp for temporary storage.
  3. Gently loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench by pushing a digging fork in the ground as deep as possible and rocking it back forth, making sure to not turn the soil over or mix it. Spread a couple inches of compost in the bottom of the trench and work it into the soil in the same fashion.
  4. Excavate a 12-inch wide strip of soil adjacent to the trench and use it to fill the trench. Avoid mixing the excavated soil by letting each spade-full slide off gently, rather than turning it over. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the new trench and enrich it with compost just as you did in the previous step.
  5. Continue with this process until the entire bed has been worked through. Use the soil from the first trench (which is waiting in your wheelbarrow) to fill the trench that is left at the end of the bed.
  6. Spread a layer of compost over the completed bed and work it into the top layer of soil using the technique of rocking back and forth with the digging fork. Then rake the bed into a smooth, even surface, ready for planting.

Avoid walking on the bed at all costs to prevent the soil from becoming compacted again. Each spring, loosen the upper surface of the bed with a digging fork and enrich with the soil with fresh compost to replace the lost nutrients of the previous season. Depending on your soil type, you’ll need to double dig again every three to five years or so as the lower layers of the bed eventually become compacted again on their own.

Here’s a video how-to:

Double-dig in clay soil with <3″ top soil. How should I amend it?

I’m double digging a few (raised) garden beds. I was debating about the lasagna method, but had some concerns about it since I don’t want to go much higher than 6-12 inches, and it seems like the soil I have now would essentially block any growth below the current grass level, so I want to spruce things up one time for a new garden bed.

Instructions for double dig I’ve seen usually say 1 spade (12″) deep, put aside, then turn up the next 1 spade (12″) deep, mix in compost, throw the top soil back on up-side down.

I went one spade deep, but I can’t imagine that my top soil layer goes down a full 12 inches. Around 3 inches in I see a clear line from a light brown to the orange clay color. The farthest I got was about 16 inches deep total, I took a break and came back the next day to find it filling with water. I live in a low-lying area and the road drains into my backyard, so it’s often quite wet. I ignored the common statement about not digging in wet soil, because I can’t imagine I’m making it any worse, since it’s pretty much always at least a bit wet (clumping).

Based on that I’ve started digging only 3″ (top soil), setting aside, using a garden spade to loosen the next 12″, and throwing in bags and bags of compost to mix in (looks like at least 25% compost right now).

Then I put my 3″ inch top layer back on upside down, but it’s full of grass roots. I dug those up a bit, and mixed in more compost. I don’t expect that the grass will die on its own as is normally explained by being drowned out of sun since it’s only <3″ under and has exposed roots, so I’ll throw some cardboard or newspaper on top for a month to see if I can get it to die off a bit.

  1. Does my interpretation of the top-soil layer seem like a proper modification to the standard double-dig instructions?

  2. Is 25% compost good enough, or should I add more? I ordered a cubic yard from the county, so I have more than enough to put in if needed.

  3. Is only compost enough to mix in? I want to plant on it this year, and am considering ordering top soil to throw another 6″ on top for good measure if needed.

TLDR; Is 75% clay / 25% compost good enough to plant veggies this year, or should I buy topsoil to cover?

Tilling By Hand: How To Till Soil By Hand With Double Digging

If you’re starting a new garden, you will want to loosen the soil or till where you will be growing your plants, but you may not have access to a tiller, so you’re faced with tilling by hand. If you use the double digging technique, however, you can start hand tilling soil without expensive machinery.

How to Till Soil by Hand with the Double Digging Technique

1. Start by spreading compost over the soil where you’ll be tilling by hand.

2. Next, dig a 10-inch deep ditch along one edge of the space. When you double dig the garden, you’ll be working from one end to the other.

3. Then, start another ditch next to the first. Use the dirt from the second ditch to fill the second ditch.

4. Continue hand tilling soil in this fashion across the whole area of the garden bed.

5. Fill the last ditch with the soil from the first ditch you dug.

6. After completing the steps above with this double digging technique, rake the soil smooth.

Benefits of Double Digging

When you double dig the garden, it is actually better for the soil than machine tilling. While hand tilling soil is labor intensive, it is less likely to compact the soil and less likely to severely disrupt the natural structure of the soil.

At the same time, when you are hand tilling soil, you are going deeper than a tiller, which loosens the soil to a deeper level. In turn, this helps to get nutrients and water down further in the soil, which encourages deeper and healthier plant roots.

Typically, the double digging technique is done only once in a garden bed. Hand tilling soil with this method will sufficiently break up the soil so that natural elements such as earthworms, animals and plant roots will be able to keep the soil loose.

Secret #3 for Planning a Garden Your Family will Love!


When we think about preparing a spot for our garden, images of digging, plowing, or tilling often come to mind. But did you know that it is not necessary for preparing your garden? What if there was an easier way? Not that we want to be lazy, but often man’s way can create unnecessary work that we wouldn’t have to do if we did things God’s way. In this post I want to share a few simple techniques that will get your family excited about preparing the garden this year!

When I was first gardening I worked very hard to dig my little plot all up with a shovel. In our red Alabama clay I even remember using a pickaxe sometimes! Many gardening books I read extolled the benefits of ‘double-digging’, which is basically plowing by hand with a shovel. It seemed like very productive work (definitely can produce a lot of sweat!). But one season I took one of my small garden spots and covered it with leaves from our woods instead of digging it up. The vegetables I planted in the ground of that garden did amazing! Even better than my dug gardens!

So what is the best way to prepare our gardens?

When preparing our gardens, all we need to do is remove the weeds without plowing, and add a mulch cover (God’s blanket)!

All those years I laboriously dug or tilled my gardens the adjacent woods looked on and grew without any plowing or added fertilizer. Each fall the trees would blanket the forest floor with a beautiful mulch of leaves, providing protection for the soil and food for the microbes that help feed the trees. Without the disturbance of the plow God’s fertilizer system of bacteria, fungi, earthworms worked together to break down the minerals and organic matter into food for the plants. If I had taken the time to look up from digging in my garden I might have been able to learn something!

In order to copy God’s way of growing things here are three steps for preparing your garden this year without plowing!

1. Precisely Layout Your Garden

Before you prepare your garden you need to lay out the size and shape of it. It is worth taking the extra time to do it right since it will impact the planting and care of your garden. Use strings, stakes, and measuring tape to determine the layout of your garden and to separate walking areas from growing areas.

2. Remove the Existing Plants (Weeds, grass, etc).

It may be a daunting task to remove the weeds or grass from your garden plot without plowing or digging. But it is really not that hard! You have two options I would recommend:

A. Spread a tarp over the area you have marked off for your garden to smother and kill the existing plants. This is definitely the easiest method, but does take some forethought since the tarp will need to be there for several weeks or months (depending on the time of year).

B. Use a hoe to cut/scrape the weeds or grass off at ground level. This is a little harder than tarping, but it is fast and way easier than digging! The best hoe to use is one that is heavier, rather than a cheap lightweight hoe.

3. Add a Blanket of Mulch

Once you have removed the existing plants from your garden without digging or plowing, then you need to cover it with God’s blanket (mulch). This can be either dead grassy or leafy material. Dried grass clippings, leaves, and straw can all be good mulches. But just avoid putting mulches on that contain weed seeds or creeping grasses like bermuda grass. Sometimes you can even use the grass or weeds you removed from your plot for mulch!

Since I have started preparing my garden using what I can observe of the way God grows plants I have had amazing results! Maybe you have always plowed. This year I would encourage you to take just a small part of your garden and try preparing it using the three steps above. See what happens and then gradually expand the system to the rest of your garden. God loves it when we are faithful with even a little, and then He will add to us?

In my next part of this series I plant to share tips on planting in your newly prepared garden!

There are different ways we can copy God’s growing methods in our garden. How are you going to display the wisdom of God in your garden this year?


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Retire Your Tiller

It is a wonderful feeling to discover a gardening hack that saves you time and effort without decreasing the health of your garden. Imagine the extra time you would have if you never tilled your garden again. Guess what? Not only can you save time with a no-till garden, you can improve the quality of your soil that way too!

My friend Shawna Coronado is a talented gardener, promoter of green lifestyles, and garden-hack pro. Shawna joins us today to share the details on how to create a no-till garden from her wonderful book 101 Organic Gardening Hacks. If you like this time-saving, soil-improving, organic gardening hack, you’ll love the other 100!

By Shawna Coronado

If you love your soil, stop flipping it over.

Sometimes the best way to improve something is to let it be. A no-till garden is a perfect example. And creating one also means less work for you. Imagine building a large garden without having to turn the soil over in your garden beds.

Turning soil kills the microbes living beneath the ground that contribute to a healthier root system by living symbiotically with your roots. There are billions of bacteria, millions of fungi, thousands of protozoa, and scores of other nematodes and organisms found in one small tablespoon of healthy soil. Hacking your garden soil with a few simple no-till tips can make for hugely successful growing because you keep those vital creatures alive and happy in your garden beds.

A no-till garden has other benefits. Because you are consistently smothering weeds with mulch or compost, they struggle to grow there, and an undisturbed, enriched soil requires far less fertilizer in order to support successful plants. The no-till technique works in almost any garden space and can help grow extremely healthy organic vegetables and herbs.

How to Create a No-Till Garden

Instead of turning your soil over for a garden, start by removing all of the grass, either by stripping the sod or smothering the grass (see Hack 79: “Kill Grass by Smothering It”).

  1. Put down a 2-inch layer of rotted manure or compost on top of the bare soil. Do not turn the soil over.
  2. Dig holes to plant your plants.
  3. Mulch the garden the first year with wood chips or another natural mulch, such as pine needles, rotted leaves, or straw.
  4. After the harvest at the end of the season, do not pull out the vegetable or herb plants by the root; cut their stems at the base of the soil and leave the roots in the ground to overwinter and eventually rot. Compost the cut plant matter.
  5. Next planting year, cover the garden with another 2-inch layer of compost.
  6. When planting new vegetables and herbs, only pull out roots from the previous year if they block an area for a new plant. Be sure to rotate the crop so that no plant from the previous season is planted in the same location in the current year.
  7. In your third planting year, follow the same practices, but add a layer of mulch instead of a layer of compost.
  8. In your fourth planting year, follow the same practices, but add a layer of soil instead of a layer of mulch.
  9. In the fifth planting year, follow the same practices, but add a layer of rotted manure instead of a layer of soil.
  10. In the sixth planting year, follow the same practices, but add a layer of compost instead of rotted manure.
  11. Continue every season layering up the compost, mulch, soil, and rotted manure without ever turning over the soil.

About the Author

Shawna Coronado is an author, columnist, blogger, photographer, and spokesperson for organic gardening, green lifestyle living, and culinary preparation who campaigns for social good. Shawna’s goal in authoring gardening and green lifestyle books is to promote a world initiative to encourage healthy and sustainable living. She was featured as a Chicago Tribune “Remarkable Woman” and speaks internationally on building community, simple urban garden living, and green lifestyle tips for the everyday person. Shawna lives in the western suburbs of Chicago where she has a famous front lawn vegetable garden. You can learn more about her at www.shawnacoronado.com.

I’m starting a new garden this year. My husband and I have been living in this house since last spring, but we moved in just a few weeks too late to plant a garden last year. I grew the majority of my vegetables at my parents’, just putting in a few things at our house in the fall: garlic, turnips, radishes, and spinach. But now that the winter weather is finally easing up and the ground is drying out, it’s time to get down to the business of digging a new garden, for this year and hopefully many years to come!

I get a fair amount of flak for my approach to starting new garden beds. Now that I think about it, the flak comes entirely from men. They cannot seem to understand why I would forgo the use of a tiller. And I can’t understand why anyone would want to use one if they didn’t have to. Tillers are noisy, heavy, cumbersome, don’t always start, require fuel, and produce fumes. They turn over only a few inches of soil, destroy tilth, kill earthworms, and chop perennial grass roots into tiny pieces–all of which then resprout with a vengeance. But one of the worst things about them, I think, is that they separate the gardener from the soil.

I don’t know about you, but my primary reason for gardening is the pleasure I take from being in the natural world and watching its daily goings-on. Gardening is, for me, a way to participate in nature. I get to play handmaid to an amazing array of vegetable and animal species very unlike myself. And I get an inside peek at whole realms of existence that non-gardeners don’t have the first idea about. How many people know what a stink bug egg looks like? Or that stink bug babies are actually powder blue and kind of cute?

One of the most important elements in any garden is its soil. Healthy soil, healthy plants. A gardener needs to have an intimate acquaintance with the ground. With its texture, its moisture level, the sorts of critters living and working there. Digging one’s garden is an excellent opportunity to deepen this acquaintance.

When I dig my garden by hand, I find myself frequently investigating the soil I turn over. I’m always spying new things: unusual insects, tunnels made by small animals, roots, fungi. Once I unearthed a rusty, hand-forged iron ring and chain that looked like it had once been used in some sort of horse-drawn equipment. All of these are things I would miss from behind a tiller. The ring and chain because they were buried deeper than the tines of a garden tiller ever reach. The other things because being behind a tiller keeps you at a distance from the earth. There’s something about the use of machinery–the noise, the knowledge that fuel is constantly being consumed, the efficiency-oriented machine-like mindset it puts you in–that keeps you from pausing in the work to lean down and inspect anything.

Working with a machine feels like exactly that: work. It’s almost an attack mentality. I am going to the ground to subdue it! Whereas, when I go to the garden with my shovel, I have a feeling of interaction with that ground. I am going, not just to prepare a place for my garden plants, but to investigate. To explore. To come to an acquaintance–even a friendship–with that ground. And I can’t do the same when I am behind a tiller. A tiller feels aggressive. Destructive. Maybe that’s why many men like it. But it’s not the attitude with which I approach gardening. I go to the garden out of love. Out of a desire for communion. And for learning.

I also go to use my body. I enjoy exercising my muscles. I enjoy learning to turn the earth skillfully. I enjoy seeing my strength grow over the course of the digging season, and from year to year. I come in from the garden invigorated.

And just in case any of you think that the reason I don’t see the point in using a tiller is because I have a small garden, let me just say that my garden last year was about 2,500 sq. ft. Not exactly tiny. And all dug by hand. Three times.

Honestly, I can’t for the life of me see any reason I would ever give up the joys of digging to use a noisy, cumbersome, temperamental motorized machine. My arms and my shovel do the work better and at almost the same pace, after a few years of experience. And I can simultaneously enjoy the peace and quiet of the afternoon, punctuated only by birdsong (and the occasional song from my own lips).


For details on preparing new garden beds by hand, see my post The Digging Days…of Winter?

Also note that it is very important to dig with a sharp shovel! Shovels new from the store have horribly blunt tips that are very tiring to use. You’ll be using almost three times the energy to do the same work. (Maybe that’s the reason so many people believe digging is such a pain….)

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